Monday, September 9, 2013

Carrots and Sticks, and The New Paradigm: The Background

Originally posted on Thursday, December 15, 2011

I first blogged about rewards and punishments on a friend's blog this past summer [the blog has since gone dormant :-(]; the mothers on the blog had written about their stance on corporal punishment, and I suggested a follow-on post about viable alternatives to spanking and smacking and ended up guest-blogging that week. Not only did I come out against smacking, but against rewards and punishments altogether. That post is pretty much the condensed version of the novel I've written below.

I've had occasion to be thankful many many times throughout the past 10 years of my life for circumstances teaching me so many things. The biggest part of my last 10 years has been parenthood, which in many ways has radically changed how I do, well, EVERYTHING - but in other ways it has also reinforced a lot of things I was already doing as a teacher and began doing instinctively as a parent until I let well-meaning doctors, teachers, and even friends and family get advice in there that made me second-guess myself. It wasn't until I recently found an old evaluation form from a school principal who evaluated my teaching probably 14 years ago, give or take, that I actually remembered some of my pre-parenthood philosophies and realized how true to them I had stayed - or come back to. LOL

I do think that now that I've parented a strongly introverted "atypical" gifted child and a strongly extroverted and also-gifted but more neurotypical one, I have many new insights into children than I did before I had any of my own. I'm also pretty sure that if I'd had a son, or if I had more children, that my parenting - and teaching - would be even different than it already is, so I do recognize that I don't have all the answers - just a lot more than I did 10 years ago (with a lot to go, I'm sure!).

When my Bookworm was born 10 [now 11-1/2] years ago, I suffered with horrendous post-partum depression. She wouldn't sleep, and when she finally did, it was short naps all day and she was chronically tired. By 3PM, even after 4 or 5 of those short 45-minute naps, she was overtired and cried nonstop till she fell asleep at night, usually after a screamfest because she couldn't settle. I joined an online parenting forum when she was about 3 months old, looking for advice, and that's where I learned about infant reflux - that would explain the copious fountains of milk the child spit up - honestly, it was like a scene from The Exorcist over a dozen times a day, no lie - and the fact that she cried, no, screamed bloody murder, when she was put down to sleep; the acid coming back up her throat would have burned when she was no longer upright. When I called the doctor's office for help with the constant crying and milk fountains, I was told, and I quote, "Ma'am, babies spit up. They cry. It's what they do." Fortunately I had the sense - more likely the pig-headed anger - to hang up on the nurse and call back and get someone more open to being pushed into a doctor's appointment. The doctor was surprised at the huge spray of milk Bookworm left all over the exam room floor - "Cleanup in Room Three!" - but I wasn't, and we left with a prescription for Zantac and a sense of hope. The meds did help my child sleep a restorative sleep for the first time in 3 months, but by then there was some serious damage done: It's hard enough for a depressed mother to bond with her baby at best, but a depressed mother whose bloodstream is flooded nonstop with cortisol from a crying baby who is overtired and unable to get enough rest to prevent possible developmental delays is a more serious problem; it was many many years before we really bonded, much longer than it should have been. To top it off, in retrospect, having learned so much more about diet, I probably should have taken all dairy out of my own diet while I was breastfeeding; her symptoms correspond to Milk Protein Intolerance and to this day neither of my kids can digest dairy well except in yogurt form [or raw/unpasteurized milk].

As Bookworm grew into toddlerhood, I knew that something wasn't *right*. It wasn't something I could put my finger on, it wasn't quite the same as things I'd noticed in older students as a teacher, but it wasn't *RIGHT*. There was some eye contact but it wasn't like anyone else's. There was conversation and advanced use of vocabulary, but incorrect use of first and second person for far longer than there should have been. There were fine-motor challenges I didn't see other children her age having; these became even more noticeable in preschool compared to her agemates. There was definitely intelligence in there - I have video of her reading aloud from a Cheerios activity book and following the directions in there at 26 months of age - but something just wasn't right. I was assured by relatives and doctors that everything was fine, that my experience as a teacher was coloring my judgment - and I believed them. My bad.

When she went to preschool for the first time, things went really REALLY wrong. BADLY wrong. That was when I really noticed her sensory-defensive behavior, how she blinked rapidly when lots of kids were milling around her, the way people do when you pretend to throw something right at their faces, the way she put up her hands defensively, the way she struck out at people she perceived to be in her space. She became angry, VERY angry. She insisted she liked preschool well enough, though, so rather than pull her out of an environment where she clearly wasn't coping and the staff had no idea what to do with her, we kept plugging away.

As preschool went on, the hitting escalated to scratching and spitting and screaming. By then I'd read up on sensory issues but couldn't get a living soul to take my concerns seriously; her doctor at the time told me, "I'm not sure I believe in Sensory Processing Disorder." Wait, what? SPD isn't a deity to "believe in" or not....but it's also not in the DSM - that's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for those of you not yet familiar with the term - so it "doesn't exist" from a diagnostic standpoint. It also doesn't exist from a treatment standpoint, at least not if you want your health plan to help pay for the treatment. *sigh*

Bookworm's teachers were adamant that I wasn't being strict enough with her. "You really need to crack down on that behavior," they told me. Believe me, I was trying. Hard. But I was also beginning to realize something else: there are some things you just can't punish away. We tried 3-2-1 Magic, we tried Love and Logic, there was Time Out and Toy Jail, and there was a single swat on the backside that resulted in nothing but a complete and utter breakdown on her part and mine. Each and every thing we tried not only failed to fix anything, but made our relationship with our little girl more and more contentious. Tantrums were more and more hair-trigger, lasted longer, and were more and more extreme; one horrific night at bedtime we had to wrap her in a blanket to keep her from hurting herself and us. The ONLY advice we EVER got from anyone was to be more strict; my pleas to our doctors for help for her rages were falling on deaf ears. Something desperately needed to be changed. Ah, heck, let's not mince words: EVERYTHING needed to be changed.

On the same parenting forum - yes, I was still there 4 years later (and I still hang out there from time to time) - someone mentioned Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting. I wish I knew who that mother was who changed our lives by telling me about that book so I could thank her properly. I wish I could share the information in it with every parent out there, even before they have children. I wish I could share it with every educator and school principal on the planet. Of all the books I've read and have shared and recommended to others, there are very very few that have impacted and transformed our lives the way the information in this book has.

At the heart of it, the message was simple: "Rewards and punishments are not the answer." Flew in the face of everything I'd learned in Teacher School, which revolved around Skinner and Behaviorism. Completely upended those "Assertive Discipline" ("Find the punishment whose impact exceeds the payoff of the offense," basically.) workshops my first school had sent me to. And wow, what was I to make of the bells and whistles and "carrots" and "sticks" I'd concocted over the years to motivate my students to "be good" and avoid "being bad?"

But the more I read, the more sense it made. No punishment or reward, not even threat of dire punishment or promise of delightful reward was keeping my child from smacking her classmates or trying to scratch their faces in her rages. She wasn't able to cope with so much of the whole preschool experience, and her difficulties were neurologically-based; carrots and sticks simply could not, despite her teachers' and doctors' insistence that they would, correct the social delays and her social immaturity. Not only that, but I eventually learned that they just weren't needed in our house: they weren't needed to help her correct her behavior, nor that of her younger - and more neurotypical - sister.

So now you know why we don't do rewards and punishments in our home. Next post: where I disagree with carrots and sticks outside the home - school and work, for example - and why.

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)